News from Timbuktu is still rather depressing I'm afraid, though, as ever, there are spring shoots.
Anyone who visits the ancient city and passes through town in the late afternoon as the heat of the day is wearing off and as the schools empty out onto the streets, will probably remark at the surprising modernity and familiarity of the scene. Sharply dressed boys in sequined jeans cajoling colourful head scarfed girls in figure hugging pants. Shades and make up, caps and wigs, short skirts and hip-hop boxers, peacock and hen, Arab and Tamasheq, Songai and Bambara - the evening cocktail a cool delight.
A few hundred of these youthful Timbuktusians organised a march through the streets to protest at the unfamiliar insecurity in their lives. It was brought to an end by islamists shooting in the air to disperse the crowd.
In Bellah Ferrandi, a northern quater of Timbuktu, a man was caught stealing a car and was lynched before the islamists could arrive, which shows the desperate sense of insecurity people are feeling.
The MNLA do not seem to have total control, and these islamist malitias - AQIM and Ansar Dine are profiting from the chaos. The looting and pillaging by these militias has continued. The French owners of the Hounde hotel have informed me that the loot is taken out to the desert to "les algerians"" and then they return for more. People who have abandoned Timbuktu have had their homes looted. You may have heard of a Swiss Christian who lives in Timbuktu being kidnapped. Apparently she is in Timbuktu still, there has been some sort of exchange with her between groups, but there are now hopeful signs that she will be released.
In Gao young men have only two options: join up with the islamists for money, or the MNLA for the cause.
In Mopti and Djenne, Jenaba my cook and Sory my guide are fine but hard up as there is no work.
Only 4 months ago Mohammed and Sory and Mamayiti and Jenaba, Tuareg, Fulani and Bozo, were all larking about together on my trip across Mali to the Festival In the Desert. Today they are all in their communities, worrying about tomorrow when they may be forced to fight each other.
There is constant talk of the MNLA being on the point of expelling the islamists but it is long in coming.
It is increasingly clear that Algeria is directing the islamist parade through its secret service the DRS.
Strangely the islamists want no independent Azawad though we are told the new desert state would give Al Qaeda a fresh new state in which to harbour. Instead they want the impossible - sharia law throughout Mali. Why? This cannot be what Algeria really want, and it wouldn't be stomached by ECOWAS or the African Union or anyone else, one would have thought.
If AQIM were really Al Qaeda, given the state of the "organisation" post Bin Laden, surely a new state in a desert in which they are already based would be a rather attractive option. If you really wanted to impose Sharia law on a state in Africa, that would be by far the easiest route. If I was a Mokhtar Belmokhtar or an Iyad Ag Ghaly or an Abou Said, the big boys in the scary brigade, and I was truly an ideologue, I'd sit back, let the MNLA negotiate as good a deal as they can get (and with total control of the region, the MNLA case for independence at the table would be pretty strong). With Tuareg control/autonomy/independence, time and isolation, patience and infiltration, I'd bribe my way into their hearts. And if not, well all those arms already there and my supply through Algeria in tact, eventually I'd just take by force my piece of the desert.
If however I wanted a return to the status quo or I was working to a foreign agenda or I wanted to bring in foreign troops, the best way to work towards that would be to take advantage of the chaos, shout loud and threaten big.
Who would want to bring in foreign troops?
ECOWAS or the AU might if outright independence of Azawad was likely, but I think they'd prefer a negotiated settlement that keeps Mali in tact. I can't see either of these bodies fighting their way to their preferred settlement.
With the US and their force in Africa, AFRICOM, I hope and pray that under Obama the whole Al Qaeda mythology is less of their focus now. Besides, their ally Algeria sort of controls their interests in the region. But who knows with US foreign policy?
The French? They worry me most. With Total sniffing at Mali's oil, but with more of an eye towards their uranium mining concessions in Niger, an independent Azawad in Mali would be one thing, but if the disease spread across the border to Niger's Tuareg region, it would be potentially catastrophic for their interests. They have, so to speak, pooped on the Tamasheq people since they were the last people in the region to succumb to their colonial administration, and this will not be forgiven.
Algeria? They are the power in the region, so I think they either want a return to the status quo or they'll take a chaotic no man's land where they can continue to call the shots through their links to the islamist groups. They dont want independent Azawad, and unlikely that they want foreign troops on their domain. The best way back to the status quo though is to scare the shit out of the world and the region with an idea of the alternative.
If foreign troops were to come into Mali, and if the MNLA were to be fought, ECOWAS would have to come at them from the south and Algeria from the north. I cant see how an AU or ECOWAS force could beat the MNLA alone from the south.
Tum-ti-tum - off to the beach!